Sarah_PalinA while back the History News Network featured part of a Harper’s interview with Max Blumenthal, the author of the new book, Republican Gomorrah (published by Nation Books). This snippet included Blumenthal’s explanation for starting the book with a portrait of R. J. Rushdoony, a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (full disclosure, my denomination), who advocated the use of Old Testament law for modern statecraft. Blumenthal then played pin-the-tail-on-the-intellectual donkey, linking Rushdoony to Francis Schaeffer, the so-called father of the Religious Right, who influenced Marvin Olasky, who was an advisor to George W. Bush especially in developing the theme of “compassionate conservatism.” Blumenthal concludes his answer with this:

After Roe v. Wade, Schaeffer became convinced the government had legalized infanticide. He was radicalized almost overnight and began churning out polemics urging evangelicals to use “force in the defensive posture,” a watchword for domestic terrorism, to stop abortion. While Rushdoony provided the Christian right with its governmental blueprint, Schaeffer offered it the political strategy–organizing against abortion–it required to attack America’s secular underpinnings, including the moderate Republican establishment. It’s important to remember that prior to Schaeffer, right-wing evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell were fixated on stopping the racial integration of their so-called “private Christian schools.”

There you have it, a neat bow on a frightening package – Old Testament law, presidential politics, opposition to abortion, and terrorism, all signifying the conservative movement. And liberals think Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck simplify the Obama administration. Granted, these radio personalities have a larger audience than Harper’s, the Nation, and the History News Network. But Limbaugh and Beck don’t claim to be scholars, and their listeners don’t claim to be experts about politics, religion, or history. If Susan Jacoby really wants to claim that conservatism has dumbed-down American culture, she may want to hold up a mirror to her reasonable and smart friends who can’t tell the difference between picketing an abortion clinic and flying a 737 into a skyscraper.

But the point of this kvetch is not to weigh the brain mass of conservatives and liberals but to bring up a subject that religious historians should be teaching to the rest of the American population from their lecterns, articles, books, and blogs – it is that the Religious Right is nothing new in U.S. history and that scaring citizens with the apparently bizarre proposals of Christian conservatives is bad scholarship. Prior to the Religious Right, Protestants, whether liberal or fundamentalist, concocted various schemes to preserve the United States as a Christian (read: Protestant) nation, from the Civil War, to Prohibition, to the civil religion of the Cold War. During that time, Protestants had access to all sorts of presidents, even the ones who had their finger poised on the button to drop “the bomb.” John Foster Dulles may have mingled with a tonier set than Carl McIntire (though Dulles certainly did not wear a better suit), but his anti-communism and God-and-country outlook were not substantially different from fundamentalist anti-Communists like McIntire.

What this historical perspective means is that the Religious Right is simply in continuity with a swath of American Protestantism that many religious historians regard not as extremist but as mainstream, tolerant, and respectable. Granted, the Religious Right had the bad timing to show up after many Protestants had capitulated to some sort of secular America, and they did not always show an awareness of how America had changed not just religiously but demographically after the 1960s. (This was actually the point of the Religious Right’s complaints – they didn’t like what the nation was becoming. Since when is complaining so scary or unAmerican?) But to portray people who differ little from previous generations of Americans as those who nurture terrorist ideas and actions is to show a real ignorance of the field in which you are supposed to be an expert.

This may be an odd point coming from a writer who regularly chastises the Religious Right. I have not changed my assessment of evangelical politics. I think it is flawed theologically and politically. But I sleep relatively well each night, despite my criticisms, because I know born-again Protestants, however mad they may be at me, believe in an important piece of Moses’ law – namely, the sixth (as Protestants count them) commandment.

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D. G. Hart is a visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College. After completing his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, he taught at Wheaton College and Westminster Seminary before directing academic programs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He is the author of several books, including A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (Ivan R. Dee); The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies and American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press); and From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelical Protestants and American Conservatism (Eerdmans).

13 COMMENTS

  1. Blumenthal’s potted and slapdash history isn’t even worthy of being called “connect-the-dots” — what he’s doing amounts to forcing the lines together first THEN drawing in the dots. Anyone with a half-way decent handle on the history of Evangelicalism and the Religious Right can rip his “thesis” to shreds.

  2. What I’ve appreciated about the religious right, or charasmatics, or evangelicals is that they represent the wide swath of Christianity in search of what Voegelin might describe as existential consciousness not only acknowledging but seeking the metaleptic communion with the Logos. What these disparate groups signaled was their dissatisfaction with the mundane and meaningless recitations of doctrine brought about by the dominance of school theology, that inevitably “led to the modern spiritual crisis.” And, what they sought was nothing less than the Christ; living, real, experienced.
    The fact is they did not derail via existential consciousness into a gnosticism that described an “alien earth” but rather embraced a Savior who opened paradise to the “poor.”
    Ironically while ‘mainstream’ Protestant churches sometime engage in a bitter critique, mockery, and belittling of the “religious right,’ similar to the remonstrations of a dying beast, it is the secularists in their embrace of the Enlightenment and technology who are their most ardent foes having rejected not only the Gospel as an “event in the drama of revelation,” but any understanding of a non-existent reality or the transcendent. However, given that the secularists have failed miserably in their efforts to recapture the existential tension of existence and derailed into ideological disorder and madness one might be tempted to describe the cultural divide as: the derailed secularists and their dreamworld populated by epigonic Marxists, the so-called “mainstream” Christians and their dessicated doctrine, or the sundry components of the ‘religious right,’ always seeking the experience or the Lord, God.

  3. “But I sleep relatively well each night…because I know born-again Protestants…believe in…the sixth…commandment.”

    I’m glad you sleep well. If I lived anywhere within a thousand miles of Baghdad, I know I would take no solace from the idea of a Protestant in the White House.

  4. Cheeks,

    Good analysis although I’m not convinced that the Charismatics quite escape the gnostic charge with their daily “prophecies” of the imminent destruction of the earth.

  5. BOO! always gets the attention of the weary reader. Dumbing down is one of the few bipartisan initiatives of the age.

  6. Thanks Gas! However, I’m the king of vague generalizations and hyperbole here so if you want to write “I’m not convinced that the Charismatics quite escape the gnostic charge with their daily “prophecies” of the imminent destruction of the earth,” that’s fine. But, I’d really like a little more detail, differentiation, and explication.
    The charismatics I’ve known and I’ve long been in love with one, are folks who live in an “open” existence. That sort of existence that is required not only for philosophers but for those who metaxically speaking are moving toward a dialectical communion with God; the good, old metaleptic experience, which is quite different than gnostic lust for a “knowledge” that more or less defines gnosticism. The charasmatic does not abandon the immanent, rather it is a way of living within the Platonic metaxy, the tension of existence as created by the Creator, living as man was intended to live.
    Tell me of the ‘prophecies?’
    I look forward to your comments.

  7. I’m still smoldering over Blumenthal’s shallow analysis of the Colorado mass murderer Matthew Murray. It was published in the Nation last month.

    Blumenthal tried to support his grand narrative of Christian authoritarianism with an argument based on Murray’s self-serving internet persona and a few newspaper articles about the murderer.

    The Nation has long been vulnerable to “looming theocracy” fearmongering. Paul Blanshard, author of American Freedom and Catholic Power, was once its associate editor.

  8. Cheeks,

    Don’t think of me as a competitor so much but as a co-conspirator in the cause of vague generalizations and hyperbole.

    Staying in form then, generally speaking, these “prophets” speak of a calamity that will befall the “alien earth” in the next day, week, month, year. Whether or not this is caused by their “metaleptic experience” I can’t say for sure but I’m probably not as charitable to the metaleptic experience as you are.

    If you want detail, differentiation, and detail I encourage you to visit their colorful websites.

  9. Gas, your attitude is admirable!
    So, in the spirit of speculation devoid of substance allow me to remark that those ‘people’ that you’re referring to are in fact frauds, wannabees, and psycho/pneumo-pathologically derailed (nuts or sinners). In this case (gnosticism) I rather lean toward the Satanic end as the cause for the imperfections that make up the particular passions of life related to the phenomenon, that swirl about us in our ongoing intellectual/spiritual quest.
    Call me silly but I think it has to do in “THE FALL” (Schelling: The Truth is in the myth) and all that that entails in our quixotic search for utopia or perfection we drag along a two ton glob of libido dominandi and superbia vitae that inevitably results in collapse, disintegration, and failure as we repeat over and over the quest…or at least the good (spoudaioi) ones do.
    “It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory…”
    I’m looking forward to your future caustic observations and comments.

  10. Bob, I don’t Caleb will like hearing this, but if Voegelin gives plausibility to the religious experience of charismatics, then I’m not reading EV any more. You may have a point about the nature of charismatic religious experience, and you may also be right about certain tendencies of school theology, but if Protestants are people of the book, squaring words with ecstasy is not a feat readily accomplished. And words are pretty important for preserving the forms that are essential to the kind of cultural order that a figure like Weaver advocated. Call me a formalist — my wife does all the time — but formality and prescription are cultural goods that charismatics generally undermine.

  11. Daryl,
    I do hope Stegal comments and your opening was managled (I do it with a certain, and frightening regularity) that I’m not sure exactly what you meant.
    I’m pleased you’re a fellow EV’er and I’m concerned now that I’ve misrepresented certain of his writings but by my reading of EV the entire point of his writing is to explicate the Neo-Platonist, Platonic, Greek idea of the metaxy. That is that our existence in reality is the In-Between of an existential tension defined by the poles of immanence and transcendence, where we participate in time and eternity and in fact ‘belong’ to neither one or the other. My guess is that this probably isn’t taught by the Presbyterians or United Methodists, yet the real philosopher is moving from reason to revelation where he/she enters into the metaleptic event, the communion with Logos.
    EV defines the human being in terms of the metaxy, which opens the door to “…the plausibility to the religious experience of charismatics…”
    The charismatic is merely ‘experiencing’ the phenomenon related to the metaleptic relationship of God and man. They may very well chose to use the symbols of their faith, which I’m sure, as a Christian you’re familiar with, but the experience has been described for several thousand years. Man has always had access, in a very real way to God, the Lord, Jesus.
    I’m not sure what, exactly, you mean or what your problem is related to: “…but if Protestants are people of the book, squaring words with ecstasy is not a feat readily accomplished.” But, for me, the Book, the Word of God, the exposition of the Logos, is not primarily a doctrinal device, rather a dialectical device, a means to unite being and Infinite Being in concert. And, any real relationship with the Lord, God of the Universe is one predicated on one form of ecstasy or another. I don’t think it’s possible for a human being to come into the presence of God, in whatever form you’d care to contemplate, without experiencing ecstasy and I don’t know why Christians are embarrassed by this.

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